Prized for the red berries that brighten so many year-end holiday festivities, holly plants belong to the Aquifoliaceae family. Producing those red berries in the home garden, however, requires planting a female and male holly of the same species. Only pollinated females will fruit, says Dr. Jennifer Schultz Nelson, Ph.D, and Horticulture Unit Educator for the University of Illinois Extension's Macon County Unit. Native hollies grow as shrubs or trees and provide wildlife with food and shelter.
American holly (Ilex opaca) is a stiffly branched evergreen native to the United States from New England south to Alabama and west to Texas. While trees in wetter areas can grow as high as 100 feet, their usual height ranges from 15 feet in the west to 50 in the east. American holly has deep-green, spiny leaves that remain through the winter, falling when new growth forces them from the branches. Between March and June, the gray-barked trees have inconspicuous white flowers. The female trees produce red berries toxic to people, but edible for birds and mammals. Plant American holly in sun to shade. Give it moist, well-drained acidic (pH below 7.0) sandy or loamy soil. It suffers in clay.
Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is native to the southern United States from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas. Seldom reaching higher than 25 feet, it may be single- or multitrunked. It has white-splotched gray bark and small, oval, shiny dark-green leaves. Its small, white blooms appear in April and May. Like those of American holly, yaupon's red berries feed birds and mammals. Birds nest in its branches. Yaupon makes an attractive hedge. It needs regular pruning to maintain a tree shape. Although tolerant of drought and poor drainage, it performs best in moist, well-drained sandy, loam, clay or gravel soil. Shrubs with at least one-half day of sun produce the heaviest berries.
Possumhaw holly (Ilex deciduas) is another shrub native to the southern United States. Up 30 feet high, it grows in wet woods and along coastal plains from Virginia to Florida and Texas. Possumhaw has pale gray bark and densely twigged horizontal branches with glossy, serrated deep-green leaves. Foliage becomes yellow in late fall before it drops. Inconspicuous, white, March-to-May flowers precede red berries that remain into winter. Small mammals and birds feed on the clustered fruit. Plant possumhaw holly in sun to part shade and moist sand, loam or clay.